The Obligations And Limits Of Honor

What Does the Commandment about Parents Really Entail?

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The commandment to “honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12) (or parents of whatever gender, presumably) in the Ten Commandments has been used many times as a clobber verse—as a way of demanding obedience no matter what.

So! This seems like an opportunity to look more closely at it—what is the commandment, and what are its limits?

As always, I’m bringing the Jewish perspective, Jewish texts, here. As is the way of traditional Jewish texts, they so often live in this world of male perspective; as always, let's just go with the flow, and assume that its application today might be relevant to (and about) any people of any gender.

We’ll begin with the Tosefta, an authoritative oral tradition compiled in the late 2nd c. CE.

“What exactly are the obligations of the son towards the father? Giving food and drink, clothing and covering, escorting in and out, and washing his face, feet, and hands.” (Tosefta Kidushin 1:8)

Already, we see a narrowing of the concept from the broad notion outlined in the Exodus verse. "Honor," of course, could be and include a million possible things. But here, the Tosefta is saying, make sure this person's basic needs are cared for (if this person can't care for themselves, I think.)  The work is concrete. Material. It’s not emotional. It’s not about feelings and does not apply to any situation.

shot of food on a table, and elderly arms eating it
Basic needs getting cared for, plus that looks like a lovely salad, doesn’t it?

Then we get to the Talmud.  So in the Ten Commandments, the word for relating to one’s parents is to honor, from the Hebrew kabed, related to kavod.

This is in contrast to  Leviticus 19:3, which states,

A person shall have awe for their mother and their father,

which uses the verb tirau, from yira, which could be translated as “awe” or “fear-like-fear-and-trembling”—but not scared fear, more like awed humility. Some translations of yira go with “revere.”  Anyway, the Talmud compares the two.

"What is “having awe” (Lev 19:3) and what is “honoring” (Ex 20:12)? “Having awe”: one may not stand in their father’s place, one may not sit in his place, one may not contradict their father’s words, and they may not offer an opinion in a debate contrary to their father’s. “Honoring”: one must give him food and drink, one must dress him and cover/shelter him, and one must escort him in and out.” (Talmud Kidushin 31b-32a)

So. Having awe means no physically taking over his usual place in the synagogue/study hall, and no taking the other person’s side in a public debate, which does not mean you can't ever disagree (as I read it), just that (generally speaking) one shouldn't go out of their way to contradict them publicly. And then honoring follows the Tosefta—material and concrete again.

But wait! So the full verse of Leviticus 19:3 reads,

"A person shall have awe for their mother and their father, and keep My Shabbat; I am God your God."

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 32a) looks at the connection—the obligation to have awe for parents but also to keep Shabbat. And, as such, understands this to mean that if a parent asks a child to refrain from performing a mitzvah—a divine commandment—the child need not heed that parental request.

Think about this for a second. This doesn't just mean if your parent tells you not to [insert list of ritual observance mitzvot here—keeping Shabbat or kosher or whatever], you shouldn't listen, but also—the interpersonal mitzvot.

Preserving life and health and safety, for example.

Caring for one's fellow human.

I would extend this even to say that Deuteronomy 4:9 and 4:15 would apply:

“Guard yourself and guard your soul very much"


“You shall guard yourselves very well."


If what a parent asks of you will cause you harm, you are not obligated to listen to them.

Come out! Be who you are!

Tell the truth!

Don't hold secrets that are toxic or actively harmful to you and others!

This is not what God wants.

OK, Jewish law. The Tur is an important 14th century legal decisor.

"Rabbenu Yitzchak interpreted the ruling in light of the law that children don’t have to honor their parents at the children’s expense. He uses the example of a father trying to throw away the son's wallet—the son can stop him, or even stop his father from throwing his own wallet away if it would impact his inheritance—but if it's too late, if the father threw away the wallet already... The son may not rebuke him because he can’t undo what’s in the past. The son’s silence, therefore, is a form of honor; the son is forbidden to rebuke his father. He is permitted, however, to sue the father in court to recover his money." (Tur, Yoreh Deah 240)
Hand tossing wallet into the garbage
Though, OK, it doesn’t *look* like there’s a lot of inheritance in that particular wallet. But maybe it’s just tucked in where we can’t see.

So, like, you don't have to honor your parent if it will cost you.

You can intercede with your parent if they are making a choice that will impact you.

And if they already made that decision, you shouldn't rebuke them—look! honoring!—


"Honor your father and mother" doesn't demand that you give up your rights.

And it doesn't extend to letting your parents edit your life choices.

See, for example, the Shulchan Aruch, a major 16th century law code, still one of the most authoritative law codes today:

"If a father commanded his son not to talk with someone and not to forgive him until a specific date, and the son wants to restore the friendship immediately if it weren’t for his father’s edict, he need not listen to his edict. If a student wants to study Torah in a different city where he is confident he will succeed in his studies due to a particular teacher there, and his father protests—the son need not listen to his father.”

Then comes the Rema, who wrote the Ashkenazi inline commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, adding:

“If the father protests the son’s decision to marry a particular woman that the son has chosen, the son need not listen to the father." (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 240:16)

Honoring parents doesn’t extend to letting parents decide who you should love. Who you should be friends with. Where you should study, what life paths to pursue.

It doesn’t extend to harming yourself, limiting yourself, not trusting your own choices and voice.

It just doesn’t.

Lastly, I'll note that Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, a contemporary Orthodox writer, observes that the commandment to honor one's parents doesn't include love.

We're commanded to love our neighbors (Leviticus 19:18), and we’re commanded to love the non-citizen in our midst (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19). But we are not commanded to love our parents. Just to honor them.

And, as Telushkin puts it,

"in instances of parents who have physically or sexually abused their children, I believe that children do not owe the parents respect or anything else for that matter."

I would also extend that sentiment to emotional and other kinds of abuse as well.

Honoring parents is a beautiful commandment, in my opinion, but it has major limits.

If your parent has harmed you or others, caring for yourself, setting boundaries, speaking truth and everything else is not in tension with these verses.

Honor yourselves.

Honor others.

God wants everyone to be safe and whole.

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